Virtual Reality Is Neither in Semele’s “Buffalo”

Since the Internet began, there have been deeply serious arguments about its potentials and dangers, about how free or controlled it should be.  If You Can Get to Buffalo isn’t one of them.

This new play by Trish Harnetiaux, getting its West Coast premiere in Son of Semele’s tiny black box, isn’t an argument.  And it definitely isn’t serious.  It’s a fast, funny mockup of events that took place in an early chat room — a chat mansion, actually, called LambdaMOO — and the reactions that followed.

Chase Cargill, Betsy Moore, Caitlin Teeley, Alex Wells

Chase Cargill, Betsy Moore, Caitlin Teeley, Alex Wells

For all its swift satire and comic invention, Buffalo still manages to  reach deep.  Far deeper, in fact, than the pontifications of pundits or the ponderings of scholars.  Because it’s theatre, done strikingly well, and makes us feel the human experience of those events.

Headlines and sound bites proclaim the events “a rape in cyberspace.”  And to some extent — as far as keystrokes and binary code can go — they are.  Someone in the group finds a way to hack other users’ inputs and portrays them as saying and doing violent, obscene things to one another.

A chief virtue of Harnetiaux’s script, though, and Son of Semele’s staging, is that we never (with one brief, breathtaking exception) see or hear those things.  We see instead characters we’ve come to know — as shy geeks, and as the colorful personas they don in the chat mansion — being stripped not of their clothes, but of their ability to control who they say they are.

The lurid words and acts Mr. Bungle imagines are only a distraction.  The violation is that he robs these people of a joyful gift, the power to play — and smears the graffiti of his illness upon their faces.  It’s their faces, not his graffiti, that we’re shown.  And it’s those stricken faces that suddenly turn our laughter to painful tears.

We could not arrive at this place if the artistic team were not as brave, free and slightly zany as the net explorers they’re depicting.

Meg Cunningham’s astonishing set announces at once that we’re in a place we’ve never been — separate platforms at random heights, the wall covered in oblong screenlike panels, odd strips of color.  From the top, lights (Barbara Kallir) and projections (Matthew McCray) orient and disorient us, bouncing our attention from person to person, entering and scrolling their texts on the wall amid a constant waterfall of code.

Hunter Wells’ costumes range from streetwear to hilariously inept inventions that mirror the characters’ unskilled attempts at creating new identities.  (Tellingly, Mr. Bungle [Alex Wells] hides behind a clown nose and glasses.)  And Rebecca Kessin’s sound design keeps us aurally in the world of clicks and beeps — yet transports us into the beauty of the make-believe in Starsinger’s climactic song.

Cindy Nguyen, Alex Wells

Cindy Nguyen, Alex Wells

As Starsinger, Cindy Nguyen epitomizes the timid yet adventurous souls who seek and inhabit this virtual mini-world.  Nguyen makes every step forward a leap over a hurdle of fear — when she bursts onstage in an electric red dress to sing, our hearts are in her throat.

Newcomers Chase Cargill (as dreadlocked Legba) and Caitlin Teeley (as squirrely Juniper), and the always intriguing Betsy Moore (as Grendlefish), create comic personas that gently expose the persons underneath.  Veterans Bart Petty (as Julian the journalist, and the suave Dr. Bombay) and Tim Venable (as John, who gender-morphs into Bambi) carry out their narrative duties while adding shades to their characters.  And Sarah Rosenberg embodies an aloof Bill Gates who may or may not be there.

Director Edgar Landa weaves this madness into an order we can follow, the measure of his skill being the invisibility of his work.
Stage manager Lyndsay Lucas also deserves a nod, flawlessly calling more than 100 cues in an hour (and eliding a tech glitch or two).

Among the playwright’s fine choices is a fictional episode of PBS’ Charlie Rose, with Julian and John as guests.  This shows us — and niftily satirizes — the world’s media-led reaction. It also grants us a peerless comic turn by Melina Bielefelt, who nails the TV host’s self-deprecating hubris, his sententious summaries and his lightning-quick commercial cutaways.

With larky humor and lacerating wit, If You Can Get To Buffalo takes us on a brief journey of discovery.  We realize, as the characters do, that freedom isn’t free, and that virtual reality is neither virtuous nor real.  These are important lessons; and you won’t find a more delightful — and moving — way to learn them.
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If You Can Get to Buffalo, by Trish Harnetiaux, directed by Edgar Landa.
Presented by the Son of Semele Ensemble, at Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 5:00 pm, through April 12th.  (Special performance Monday April 6 at 7:00 pm.)

Tickets: <www.sonofsemele.org>